Adriana Cavarero, the Italian feminist, classical scholar and philosopher, makes few concessions to readers less acquainted with ancient literature. I hope they will persist, with the aid of reference books. There is much challenge and interest in the four closely focused essays of which her book consists. The first is called "Penelope"; the second "The maidservant from Thrace"; third is "Demeter"; and fourth is "Diotima". Penelope and Demeter are widely known characters; but the Thracian girl is an anecdotal figure and Diotima is the Mantinean priestess who imparts a philosophy of love to Socrates in Plato's Symposium.
From these figures, Cavarero, like Penelope, weaves a tapestry depicting almost naturalistic personalities capable of representing aspects of her main theme, which is that the male patriarchal principle is diachronic, linear, abstractionist, forward-looking and (consequentially) death-orientated; whereas the female sees life as interwoven coordinates generating a peculiar space-time inaccessible to masculine thinking. The logic and assumptions involved require more space and time to examine than available here. However, the theoretic landscape is broadly visible. Penelope's weaving and unweaving at the loom tangles and holds together that which males tend to separate, namely soul and body.
Engrossed in contemplating the heavens, Thales fell into a well. He was laughed at by the pretty Thracian for not watching his terrestrial step. So Plato tells us in his Theaetetus, giving us an early example of the absent-minded professor story. Another story shows Thales as an astute man of business, but that has no place here. Cavarero contrasts the girl, "a female existence" having "no locus of signification in the celestial sphere of philosophy" with philosophers, who as a class are life-denying. Parmenides was the worst: for him the phenomenal world and the life it contains had no reality. Since his theory effectively destroys the world, it is also by this token matricidal; it recognises neither birth nor death. The metaphysician is male and matricidal. Even Sydney's Andersonians, as far as I know, never contrived so radical a criticism of metaphysics.
Freud postulated a revolt in which the father was killed by the males he had begot. Cavarero alludes to a patriarchal revolution by which males seized power from women. Although we cannot speak of either of these movements in empirical or historical terms, we may find common ground with Cavarero by supposing that several changes in the balance between male and female influence could have occurred in our ancestral cultures. Anyway, the rape of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, by Pluto is seen as exhibiting the masculine victory over matriarchy. This shattered the shared field of vision sympathetically enjoyed by mothers and daughters, disrupting the harmony of mutual feminine love. Men were able to theorise that only they are the genuine parents - Aeschylus and Aristophanes are potent authorities for this view - and there began that long period of male dominance which made women vehicles rather than persons, victims rather than agents, robbed of their subjectivity, (as Simone de Beauvoir complained several decades ago), their bodies becoming available to intrusive and abstractionist laws made by men.
Plato is represented as being profoundly opposed to women and their interests. He gets scant credit for introducing Diotima as teacher of wisdom in his Symposium. Cavarero points out that Plato's deployment of reported speech in connection with her creates the "mimetic effect of confusing and commingling the male and female voice".
A potentially powerful female influence is thereby diluted. Since respectable women were not admitted to symposia, it is hard to see what else Plato could have done; but the use of Diotima's apparently disembodied voice apparently contributes to the matricidal effect. Plato's philosophical style, by polarising mortal and immortal seems to "thematize" death: melete thanatou deprives the "living of the power to live".
Certainly in fifth-and-fourth-century bc Athens, women were miserably oppressed. Euripides and Aristophanes saw this clearly. Plato addressed the problem in his Republic. We cannot blame him for falling short of our notions of fairness in this matter. Natalie Harris Bluestone, a feminist writer on Plato, acknowledges his efforts. Cavarero does not. She thinks that Plato's supposed homosexuality makes it all the more difficult for him to understand the problem. Her view would seem to be, however, that men and women are too different to associate effectively with each other.
But that women should therefore be herded with women and men left to contemplate their abstractionist death wishes is a position hard to reconcile with such lively writing. What we need is the setting of these essays in a wider field of discourse. I hope the author will provide this sometime.
David Rankin is professor of ancient philosophy, University of Southampton.
In Spite of Plato
Author - Adriana Cavarero
ISBN - 0 7456 1259 8 and 1572 4
Publisher - Polity
Price - £39.50 and £11.95
Pages - 136